SHE KILLS WHAT SHE EATS, FIGURATIVELY AS WELL AS LITERALLY
It think The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder has a point about this:
It has been noted that [Sarah Palin's] conservatism is resentment-based, and is fueled and nourished by the specter of elite mistreatment.... But it is more than that. More than a list of grievances, Palin mixes Nixonian derision for those who think they know better with an aspirational dimension that motivates the middle class to vote.
That's astute, and I'd put it another way: as a president aspirant, she's her own Agnew -- or, perhaps, her own Cheney. She's Nixon and Agnew, Poppy Bush and Dan Quayle, W in heroic steely-eyed-rocket-man mode and Cheney at his nastiest and most vicious. While many previous Republican presidents worked to appear above the rough stuff, allowing underlings to launch the really harshest attacks, Palin, in the eyes of her fan base, is hatchetwoman and symbol of hope simultaneously. And that's what they like.
Ambinder is wrong, though, when he calls Palin
The only presidential candidate who is able to put the boots to Obama and get away with it.
Mitt Romney frequently attacks Obama, and he hasn't suffered a bit for it -- on the other hand, nobody seems to care. I'd say it's because Romney tries so hard to look like a smiling, handsome optimist president that he's unconvincing as a hatchetman. Newt Gingrich has the opposite problem: he's too Cheneyesque; he can't even fake uplift. He attacks Obama all the time, too; it does him no harm, but it doesn't help him, either.
Ambinder says of Palin:
What's she running against? Not just Rockefeller Republicanism and the media, or pointy-headed law lecturer presidents, or Katie Couric: she wants to relitigate a bunch of issues that once were settled but now seem to be unraveling. The unrestricted embrace of immigration and the dilution of an American culture. Overweening Greenism. A complicated socially engineered tax code. A much larger role for government.... The rule of experts. Even the concept of bipartisanship itself.
But every national Republican wants to relitigate those issues. Palin has just persuaded a lot of voters that, in doing so, she'll be simultaneously nastier than Gingrich and nicer than Romney (or than the nice self-image Romney tries to project).
In the past, I'm not sure Americans wanted presidents to be their own enforcers. But it's an angry time, so that's what a lot of voters want now.